SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Opinion

July 8, 2014

Our view: Secret police have no place in Massachusetts

What if we told you that across Massachusetts there are military-style law enforcement agencies serving as adjuncts to local police departments, armed with the most sophisticated and deadly weapons including armored vehicles and fully automatic firearms, conducting raids on private homes, making arrests and, if necessary, shooting and killing those they are attempting to detain?

Fine, you might say. It’s a jungle out there, and we need law enforcement to keep a lid on the criminal element.

So, what if we further told you that these agencies claim they are under no obligation to make public any of the details of their operations or their performance? They claim the public has no right to the information that is normally public record when it concerns the actions of police departments, such as statistics on numbers of raids conducted and for what purpose, who their targets are, and what kind of training they get.

These organizations are regional Law Enforcement Councils, or LECs. And despite the fact that they are staffed by local police officers and funded with public money, they claim they are private corporations and, as such, exempt from Massachusetts open records laws.

They are, in effect, a publicly funded, heavily armed, secret police force.

One such organization, the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, or NEMLEC, has long operated in the Merrimack Valley and the North Shore. NEMLEC operates a regional SWAT — or Special Weapons and Tactics — team for its 51-member law enforcement agencies. Local police departments pay annual membership dues — a transfer of money provided by taxpayers — to support the organization. NEMLEC is also supported by federal grants.

In addition to the SWAT team, NEMLEC also operates a computer crimes unit, a school threat assessment and response unit, and other support functions.

As part of the American Civil Liberties Union’s study of the militarization of police departments nationwide, the Massachusetts ACLU chapter uncovered the LECs’ claim of immunity from public records laws. The Massachusetts ACLU is currently suing NEMLEC over its public records claims. Radley Balko of The Washington Post, who has written extensively on police militarization, reported on the secrecy claims of the Massachusetts LECs.

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